In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Prenatal Development

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Influence of Prenatal Attachment
  • Moderators of Prenatal Development

Psychology Prenatal Development
Victoria Molfese, Amanda Prokasky, Kathleen Moritz Rudasill, Ibrahim Hakki Acar, Xiaoqing Tu, Kate Sirota, Brian Keiser
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 March 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 November 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0135


For decades, researchers have investigated how events in the prenatal period impact women and their infants. These studies, particularly by researchers in the medical, neuroscience, and behavioral science fields, led to discoveries of important information regarding the prenatal events that were strongly associated with mortality (or death) and morbidity (or incidences of injury, pathology and abnormalities/anomalies, and neurobehavioral sequelae) in the neonatal and infancy periods. Among the many common findings from early research studies, two are particularly noteworthy. First, maternal and fetal risk conditions arising in the prenatal period do not do so in isolation. Sameroff and Chandler characterized this as a “continuum of reproductive casualty,” in which several risks become linked together and affect events during pregnancy, outcomes at birth, and in infant and child development in subsequent years (Sameroff, Arnold. J., and Michael J. Chandler. 1975. Reproductive risk and the continuum of caretaker casualty. In Review of Child Development Research. Vol. 4. Edited by Francis D. Horowitz, 187–244. Chicago: University of Chicago Press). Second, the impacts of these risk events on outcomes were found to vary, and not all pregnancies nor all neonates and infants were impacted to the same extent, if at all. Indeed, Sameroff and Chandler addressed the variability or uncertainty of impacts of prenatal events by adding a “continuum of caretaking casualty” to their model to include the important roles of family, society, and the environment. This resulting “transactional model of development” brought attention to the importance of genetic, biological, and environmental interactions before and after birth on the outcomes observed in neonates, infants, and children. Across time, research interests in prenatal and perinatal risks and their impacts on neonates, infants, and children have expanded to the extent that many variables heavily researched in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s are no longer hot topics. Instead, advances in research and meta-analysis designs, statistical and data modeling, new technologies, and multidisciplinary collaborations are enabling investigations that were either not attempted in the past or only to a limited extent.

The authors would like to thank Jayden Nord for his invaluable input and assistance on this article.

General Overviews

The framework for the publications included in this article is built from the writings of several authors whose works have important implications for understanding prenatal development and infant outcomes. These writings in particular have addressed the relation between gene-environment interactions, sometimes now framed as fetal programming, or the resetting of genetic programming during the fetal period due to environmental variables. There is evidence that fetal programming can change outcomes in the neonatal period and across the life span. While discussions of gene-environment interactions are not new, what is new are the efforts of researchers in different fields to understand whether and how genetic influences set trajectories for outcomes that may be moderated by environmental variables. Classic publications on genetic and environmental interactions include Waddington 1957, describing an “epigenetic landscape” depicting how the environment can influence the path of development set in motion by genes. Waddington’s theoretical and research contributions are well described by in the biography Slack 2002 and in McLearn 1970, in a chapter on genetics and behavioral development. From these publications we have a better understanding of the application of fetal programming—an application to frame reconsiderations of preterm infant care, as described in Schug, et al. 2012; and a broader understanding of the continuum of prenatal development and infant outcomes, as presented in Hopkins and Johnson 2005. These publications, plus Sameroff and Chandler 1975, frame this article’s focus on research investigations of fetal development, evidence of fetal programming, and the influence of prenatal events on infant outcomes, such as prenatal exposures to maternal drug use, mental health problems, obstetric events such as weight grain, and mother-infant attachment. Finally, there is a section on multivariate designs enabling investigations of the effects of moderating or mediating variables in studies of prenatal development and infant outcomes. Together, these publications reflect current pathways in research on prenatal development.

  • Hopkins, Brian, and Scott P. Johnson, eds. 2005. Prenatal Development of Postnatal Functions. Westport, CT: Praeger.

    The seven chapters in this book focus on the continuity between prenatal events and postnatal outcomes. Chapters on the sensory and vestibular systems, brain structure and function, and the impacts of maternal anxiety and stress link theories and findings related to fetal programming, showing that early life events are detectable across the life span.

  • McLearn, Gearld. 1970. Genetic influences on behavior and development. In Carmichael’s manual of child psychology. 3d ed. Edited by Paul H. Mussen, 39–76. New York: Wiley.

    This chapter addresses behavior genetics and includes a description of Waddington’s epigenetic landscape, complete with a graphic representation and examples from animal and human research. Although research citations are dated, there is a clear presentation on the basics of genetics, and behavior genetics intended to inform researchers focusing on human development.

  • Sameroff, Arnold J., and Michael J. Chandler. 1975. Reproductive risk and the continuum of caretaker casualty. In Review of Child Development Research. Vol. 4. Edited by Francis D. Horowitz, M. Hetherington, S. Scarr-Salapatek, and G. Siegel, 187–244. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    This is a classic chapter focused on variables in the prenatal and perinatal periods that create risks for pregnancy outcomes and the development of neonates and infants. Research is reviewed on several reproductive risks and stressors as well as examples of research illustrating how caretaking casualty negatively impacts infant outcomes.

  • Schug, Thaddeus T., Adrian Erlebacher, Sarah Leibowitz, et al. 2012. Fetal programming and environmental exposures: Implications for prenatal care and preterm birth. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1276:37–46.

    DOI: 10.1111/nyas.12003

    The chapters herein present findings from multiple fields relevant to fetal programming through investigations of gene-gene and gene-environment interactions (or epigenetics) during the prenatal period. The conference goal is to use research findings to improve understanding of preterm birth and improve obstetric care. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Slack, Jonathan M. W. 2002. Conrad Hal Waddington: The last Renaissance biologist? Nature Reviews Genetics 3:889–895.

    DOI: 10.1038/nrg933

    This is a biography of the life and works of Conrad Waddington and with relevance to current research on the human genome. Details of Waddington’s work preceding and succeeding the publication of The Strategy of the Genes that introduces the “epigenetic landscape” helps put Waddington’s work into perspective. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Waddington, Conrad H. 1957. The Strategy of the Genes. New York: Macmillian.

    This classic work has complex but detailed descriptions of the epigenetic landscape. The pathways (“chreodes” or “creodes”) and the paths (“canalization”) of cell change are described along with mechanisms by which perturbations can occur. How genetic variation and environmental influences reach levels necessary for pathway changes are described.

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